A high point in the Folger Shakespeare Library’s 2016 celebration of Shakespeare, The Wonder of Will, is the return appearance of the Reduced Shakespeare Company—the other RSC—and its world premiere of William Shakespeare’s Long Lost First Play (abridged) at Folger Theatre.
The fact that a comic version of Shakespeare is being performed in a theater that shares a wall with the world’s greatest Shakespeare collection tells us that we are long past believing that parody poses a threat to the Bard’s genius. Indeed, the Reduced Shakespeare Company has been getting rave reviews for decades. Perhaps the word most commonly used to describe their high-spirited approach to Shakespeare is “irreverent.”
I wonder if that’s right. To be irreverent is to not revere. It is to scorn, deride, spurn, or mock. Yet as I see it, the ensemble’s madcap performances arise from a great love for Shakespeare, an attachment so strong that they’re not afraid to take risks or push boundaries. Underneath all the hilarity lies respect for Shakespeare’s plays and deep knowledge about them. After all, satire only works if you know exactly what you are satirizing.
Shakespeare parodies date all the way back to the Restoration, but their golden age was the nineteenth century—when skilled comedians spoofed the latest new Shakespeare production, whether George L. Fox imitating Edwin Booth’s commanding Hamlet (1870) in New York City or Marie Wilton starring as Perdita in a travesty of Charles Kean’s popular London revival of The Winter’s Tale (1856).
The most acclaimed performer in nineteenth-century Shakespeare burlesques was Frederick Robson (1821-1864). During his heyday in the 1850s at the Olympic Theatre in London—a “fringe” venue that smelled of fried fish because of the pub kitchen next door—Robson was hailed for his unexpectedly moving performance in the title role of Francis Talfourd’s Shylock; or, The Merchant of Venice Preserved (1853).
Critics agreed that Robson neither belittled the dignity of the role (he didn’t mock Shylock) nor belittled the dignity of other performers (he didn’t mock leading actors of his time). Rather, he tapped into the truth of Shakespeare’s play, but expressed it absurdly, not seriously. Moreover, he played the role in a modern way, adopting the dialect and accent then found in the Jewish neighborhoods of east London. As the theatrical magazine The Era put it, Robson’s “mock heroics” as Shylock illustrated his true “appreciation” for Shakespeare’s “original” character.
The truth of his characterization came through most strongly in the trial scene, where Robson—through his contemporary Jewish accent, his ragged costume, and his antic physicality—somehow conjured up Shylock’s tragic poignancy in the midst of comic hilarity. A crucial moment in the scene, in both Shakespeare’s original and the Victorian burlesque, occurs when Tubal brings news of Antonio’s misfortune to a Shylock already traumatized by his daughter Jessica’s escape. Shylock’s emotional reversals are especially powerful at the end of scene when Tubal’s lines alternate between news from Genoa of Antonio’s ruin (good for Shylock, because he can now exact his pound of flesh) and Jessica’s flight from Venice (bad for Shylock, because he has lost his only child). “Thou torturest me,” Shakespeare’s Shylock cries, unable to cope with the mixed reports.
In the burlesque scene, a “slightly intoxicated” Shylock fluctuates between the agony of realizing that Jessica has “bolted” with his money and giddy excitement that Antonio’s “fortunes [are] wrecked.” Robson’s alternation between despair and exultation culminates musically, in a specially rewritten version of his signature doggerel tune “Tippety Witchet.” In the song’s three verses, Shylock feistily imagines a boxing match (“my one-two-three”) against the “young dandy” Lorenzo who stole his daughter, grieves over his lost wealth (“of money she’s bereft me / And that’s a serious thing”), and delights in his plot to exact a pound of flesh from Antonio (“Yet the Christian’s pound I’ll dance around”).
Robson’s bring-down-the-house rendition of “Tippety Witchet” made his performance unforgettable because it enabled him to switch in a matter of seconds from “the intensity of human passion” to the “grotesque drollery of burlesque,” as a critic at the time explained. Spectators found themselves aching from laughter and then suddenly welling up with tears. Before you knew it, the performance tilted from comedy to tragedy, and back again. As another critic put it, “Of a sudden, the actor would be in earnest; the eyes that had been winking with a knowing vulgarity, all at once looked you full in the face, mastered you at a glance.” The audience had no choice but to succumb.
I think that’s exactly what happens with the Reduced Shakespeare Company. They convulse us with laughter and they hush us with drama. They keep us suspended midway between the ludicrous and the poignant. It’s a strangely satisfying experience. Thanks to them, we can glimpse something of the long—and reverential—history of Shakespeare parody. The spirit of Frederick Robson is alive and well these days at Folger Theatre.